On Black Friday 2019 I purchased a PS4 and a stack of games. I had been playing almost entirely indie games for the past ten years with several exceptions: Blizzard games, a few Nintendo games, Tomb Raider, Mass Effect 3, and Fallout 4. Many modern AAA franchises never interested me, or lost my interest when I heard about how long, repetitive, and/or homogeneous they often were. Still, I knew I had missed some great games over the years, so my goal now is to play through some recent AAA games that interest me and to write about each of them. Assume there are spoilers and enjoy!
I chose Spider-Man after playing Bloodborne because I wanted something light and fun and it provided. The game gushes everything I loved about Spider-Man as a kid - the connection with NYC (I grew up there), the lovable and corny Peter Parker, and the awe of learning to web sling and climb up walls. Unfortunately, like the many tentacles of Doc Ock or the endless supply of pumpkin bombs from the Green Goblin, the video game-ness was always there to ruin my fun with a barrage of AAA bloat.
It’s unfortunate video game awards aren’t 1) good and 2) designed around what should actually get awards because Spider-Man deserves an award for best game mechanic. The web slinging is a joyful, perfect, heavenly experience. Twisting around skyscrapers, shooting off rooftops, feeling the rumble as you gain speed diving off the Avengers tower...it was one of the best executed ideas I’ve ever seen in a video game. It MADE the game. Add to that a great shrunken replica of Manhattan to play around in and it is pure video game magic.
The well written emotional moments to be felt in Spider-Man are overshadowed by the shallow meaningless drivel that passes for “dramatic writing” nowadays. The pacing was all over the place, the character decisions are often random and exist only as an excuse to move to the next scene, and all the big reveals are dramatic one liners paired with dramatic music to make the player feel the emotion of surprise. Why do Doc Ock and Aunt May know Peter is Spider-Man? Why is Li the main villain and then totally cool becoming a sidekick? All of a sudden Aunt May is dying and it just happens to coincide with when you finally get a cure for what kills her? The plot was often there to make you feel, instead of making sense. It was hard to follow jumping from one scene to the next with no real explanation as to why you’d choose to do one thing instead of another. I expect some corniness and simplicity, after all it is a superhero game, but much of the second half was just bad made for TV movie writing.
There was SO MUCH VIDEO GAME GARBAGE in this game it blew my mind. This was the first time I felt the barrage of AAA bloat in many years and goddamn, it sucks. How do people play only these games? So much of it felt like jamming a square peg into a round hole. Some of those science missions...my god. My god. There was WAY too much crime to fight - four types of crime and five crimes per type for each of nine districts...that’s 180 crimes!! Some of the crimes were the hardest battles I had in the game and were more annoying than fun just because at a certain point add in too many enemies in an enclosed place and even the smooth combat of Spidey’s punches and webs will start to fall apart. Add those stupid black cat dolls, catching those damn ratbirds, all the bases, the photos, the science stations, the taskmaster tasks I mean it just went on and on and much of it was painfully mediocre. If the game was just a few crimes per district, the bases, and the photos it would have been way better off and maybe they could have spent the money they saved on hiring a better writing team.
You know what the hardest fight in the game is? Those goddamn brawlers. How do they do more damage punching Spider-Man once than any boss? Also the rare basic units (like the Demon whip-user) were just incredibly annoying at times when paired with a dozen other enemies you’re trying to simultaneously dodge. Other than that the fighting is really fun. There’s a HUGE variety of moves to the point I almost felt like I was playing Marvel vs. Capcom and some of the later skills (like web throwing rockets) were a blast (pun intended).
The worst part though...was “fighting crime”. In Spider-Man Peter and May work at F.E.A.S.T, a homeless services provider. There is a HUGE cross section of people who are homeless with people who have spent time at Rikers - the real world NYC jail that plays a prominent role in parts of the game. Many of the people Peter is helping at F.E.A.S.T. have likely also been beaten up by Spider-Man. The continuous thread of “criminals are bad people” throughout the game felt grotesque. Rikers is a HORRENDOUS jail that houses many people who have never had a court date, never been convicted of a crime, but can’t afford bail and wait in cells for months while legally innocent. Rikers is awful. Poverty and homelessness are heavily criminalized in NYC - I’ve seen police act it out first hand many times and it is disgusting, classist, racist, and one of the biggest problems in NYC. Having to play it out is probably the game’s worst feature.
The enduring feeling of BEING Spider-Man is what makes the game great. The web slinging, the combat, the feeling of NYC are the best parts and fortunately dominate the game. EVERYTHING else is forgettable. Some side quests were rooted in good ideas - I’m down to do some Mary Jane sleuthing or some Miles Morales getting out of tight situations. There was just SO MUCH extra content, that those good parts felt sandwiched and underdeveloped between bad collection quests. I was very glad to be done when I beat the game, fully realizing it easily could have been another ten hours of ever decreasing quality. I’m glad I played it and recommend to anyone who seems interested, especially Spider-Man fans - it just comes with some caveats.